It is perhaps the most significant date and event in the lives of all Kittitians and Nevisians of African heritage, but unfortunately, it is day that passes by, almost unnoticed by most black West Indians, including those who reside in St. Kitts, which was the very first Caribbean island to be colonized by both the French and English, starting in 1624. That fact is not one for celebration, because it is a date in history that paved the way for the world’s greatest genocide, exploitation, enslavement, colonization and carnage of the black race in these parts.
Emancipation Day, 1st August, should therefore be a day of reflection for all Afro-Caribbean people, but for too long there has been a deafening silence and brainwashed-education about the tragedy that became the history of most West Indians who call these islands home.
The Lesser Antilles islands of St. Kitts, Barbados, Antigua, Martinique and Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia were the first important slave societies of the Caribbean, switching to slavery by the end of the 17th century as their economies converted from tobacco to sugar production. By the middle of the 18th century, British Jamaica and French Saint-Domingue had become the largest and most brutal slave societies of the region, rivaling Brazil as a destination for enslaved Africans.
The death rates for black slaves in these islands were higher than birth rates. The decrease averaged about 3 percent per year in Jamaica and 4 percent a year in the smaller islands. The main causes for this were overwork and malnutrition. Slaves worked from sun up to sun down in harsh conditions. They were supervised under demanding masters, who gave them little medical care. Slaves also had poor living conditions and consequently they contracted many diseases. There is another possible reason; it may have been that females simply didn’t want to bring new life into their harsh world.
Author Jan Rogozinski briefly mentions this in his book, A Brief History of the Caribbean. He states, “Perhaps slave mothers simply did not see much point in raising children solely to provide labourers for their masters” (p. 142). This would have been a way for slaves to rebel against their masters. Slaves sang songs insulting their white masters and, in some cases, they would pretend to be ignorant or stupid to avoid punishment and further work. These factors may suggest that an unwillingness to bear children was a further act of resistance.
For centuries the slave trade made sugarcane production possible. The low level of technology made production difficult and labour intensive. At the same time, the demand for sugar was rising, particularly in Great Britain. The French colony of Saint-Domingue quickly began to out-produce all of the British islands’ sugar combined. Though sugar was driven by slavery, rising costs for the British made it easier for the British abolitionists to be heard.
The Emancipation of the British West Indies was proposed as early as 1787, but was not achieved until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 (effective 1834).
The British were the first to attempt to abolish slavery in the Caribbean during the early 19th century, but complete emancipation took a lot of time and effort to achieve. Many people, primarily in England, began to view slavery as cruel and unjust as The Enlightenment swept across the nation.
The global economic changes taking place during this time period created a decline in the need for slavery in the Caribbean as the industrial revolution and free trade began to take shape and products could be created more cheaply elsewhere.
However, the end of slavery was also impacted by the constant challenges posed by the Africans in the Caribbean who launched many rebellions to end the nightmare of their bondage.
Recently, a local UNESCO Committee launched a series of activities to educate the public in St. Kitts and Nevis about the slave trade and slavery itself. The committee is also hoping to erect a monument to commemorate the end of slavery and slave trade.
This would be the most tangible and significant action taken by Kittitians and Nevisians of modern times, to pay respect to their ancestors.
If is it one thing Kittitians and Nevisians are in need of; is education about slavery. For decades the people of the federation of St. Kitts and Nevis, along with the rest of the Caribbean, referred to the anniversary date for the end of slavery, as “August Monday”, not Emancipation Day. Secondly, instead of making the actual anniversary date, 1st August a public holiday, Caribbean people have opted to celebrate the occasion on the first Monday of August. This has therefore helped to confuse the people about Emancipation Day.
In recent years however, “August Monday” has been replaced with the correct term, “Emancipation Day”. That is good. However, the next step should be the declaration of 1st August a public holiday in St. Kitts & Nevis, and not using the first Monday in the month as the public holiday and day of celebration. Don’t expect this anytime soon however, because some of the most difficult obstacles to the celebration of our African heritage, has come from our very own African descendents, who have replaced the white British politicians as our leaders.